24 Mar The Drifter: What I learned about homelessness, judgment and the kindness of community
I saw him first on Friday night, after we had eaten dinner at our favorite local joint.
We were driving on Jefferson to take in the new projects downtown, and stopped at the light just short of the railroad tracks. He was sitting on a bench in front of the courthouse, wearing a large overcoat, one hand on the edge of a shopping cart loaded down with his possessions, the other holding the edges of his long hair and beard. As we passed by, I resisted the urge to jiggle the lock on my car door. He made eye contact with us – unashamed and direct. It was unnerving. Huntington’s first openly homeless man, and a brazen one at that. It felt like a dare: help him or look away.
The light changed, we drove away, and I forgot about him.
On Monday afternoon I met Tim Watt. Born in Gary, Ind., he’s a 55-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran, a father of four – and intentionally homeless.
Watt, who goes by the moniker “Harry the Homeless Hippie,” is on a two-year journey across the state of Indiana, spreading awareness for the Hoosier state’s homeless population.
Watt found himself homeless in Indianapolis after his 22-year marriage ended, leaving him angry, bitter and isolated. After transitioning into an apartment complex for homeless vets, Watt suffered from insomnia and severe anxiety attacks, and struggled with the complex’s strict policies. “I tried to calm myself down in the hallway one night by doing puzzles in a Sudoku book,” he explained. “They told me I couldn’t— that it was against the rules.” Watt left the complex and walked to a nearby park that night, where he contemplated suicide. Instead, he heard the voice of God for the first time in nearly seven years since his divorce. “He said ‘Son, I’ve got this, just calm down.’”
That night was the birth of Watt’s vision of advocacy and awareness for Indiana’s homeless population and revival of his faith. He researched and decided to travel to all 92 counties of the state, to live openly on the street and bring attention to Indiana’s “invisible people.”
“I’m a long-haired hippie freak, and I’m trying to demonstrate that you can’t judge a book by its cover,” Watt said. “It really takes overcoming your comfort zone to be able to help someone who looks like me.”
Watt relied on the kindness of strangers across the state to survive in subzero temperatures all winter, and was amazed and humbled by the assistance that was offered to him. Watt said he has slept on the street the longest in Huntington County, out of the 16 counties he has visited thus far. His visible struggle to survive in Huntington is one that many have privately shared – the homeless are unseen here, couch surfing instead of sleeping on benches, or toting duffel bags instead of shopping carts. Watt wants them to be unafraid to ask for help.
“Homelessness is in every county of this state,” he said. “It is not a disease and it’s not something to be ashamed of. Take the services you need.”
Watt is also using his journey to fundraise for the homeless. Up to 90 percent of any cash donations he receives during his stay in each county is given to nine local charities. The rest is used to purchase his food. United Way of Huntington County, among other non-profits in Huntington, received a donation from Watt. He will move on to Wabash County next.
After his two-year tour of the state is over, Watt plans to take a year to write a memoir of his travels, and then embark on a journey of homeless advocacy to every state in the U.S. He believes that in time, the perception of homeless individuals will change.
“I’m homeless, I’m not criminal,” he said. “I’m someone’s dad, someone’s brother, someone’s son and someone’s neighbor. I’m not trash to be stepped over in the street.”
Watt has certainly got a point there: after hearing his story, his face is not one I’ll soon forget.
Follow “Harry the Homeless Hippie’s” journey on his Facebook page: